Women currently make up less than a third of the national workforce in the historically male-dominated manufacturing industry, and that proportion is slightly lower in South Dakota.
But in Mitchell, several women now hold top leadership positions at local plants, and they said they’ve seen an increase in the number of women gaining interest and applying for jobs in manufacturing.
“I think women are starting to realize what the career opportunities are in manufacturing," said Teresa Sternhagen, assistant general manager and vice president of manufacturing at Toshiba America Business Solutions’ Toner Products Division in Mitchell. " ... Everyone thinks that we’re still putting widgets together, and you do the same thing over and over again. That’s not true. My day’s never the same twice in a row, and I think people just need to realize that, especially women. You can have a very good, long-term career in manufacturing, and it can be very satisfying.”
Sternhagen, who grew up in Tyndall, began her career handling customer service and ordering parts for a small equipment manufacturing company in Yankton. She spent about 10 years at that company, including time as a senior buyer, before working for three years as a materials manager at an electronics company.
In 2008, Sternhagen was hired as Toshiba’s supply chain manager. A decade later, she moved into her current role on April 1 and said she believes she's one of the only women to ever have assisted in running a Toshiba plant. Women currently make up 17 percent of the Mitchell plant's management team.
“If I wanted to give advice to anyone first entering or first thinking about their career, really don’t exclude manufacturing. There’s some very good, long-term positions that are available for people," Sternhagen told The Daily Republic on Thursday. "And if you’re willing to start from the very beginning, maybe being an operator on our shop floor, there’s advancements that can happen. There’s opportunities there, with on-the-job training and professional certifications. Just don’t be afraid to take that chance on manufacturing.”
Becky Pitz, a native of the Aberdeen area, has spent her entire career in Mitchell. After earning her degree in chemical engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, she began her manufacturing career as a process engineer at Toshiba. She became the technical engineer at Poet Biorefining in Mitchell in 2006 and has been the general manager there since 2013.
Another woman holding a leadership position at one of Mitchell’s manufacturing businesses is Angelique Frost, who is the plant manager at Enertech. Frost was unavailable for an interview prior to this story’s publication.
Pitz said there's a stereotype that manufacturing is a men's industry, but that she's seen more women getting interested in math and science, aided by STEM programs in schools and examples of other women leading the way.
"I knew that going into it," Pitz said. "I’ve worked with men my whole entire career, and it’s just now getting to be more common to see more female engineers out there. It’s very much a stigma, and it’s just getting over that now."
Women may be studying math and science more than they had in previous generations, women are still a minority in manufacturing. At Mitchell Technical Institute, two women are currently enrolled in manufacturing programs, and for the past five fall semesters, that number has fluctuated between one and four. In total, 87 students are currently enrolled in one of MTI’s programs that directly relates to manufacturing, according to MTI Associate to the President Julie Brookbank.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the proportion of women in the country’s manufacturing workforce hasn’t changed much in the past half-century. Though women make up slightly less than half of the country’s overall workforce, women held 28.2 percent of jobs in the manufacturing industry in 1970 and 29 percent in 2016, with the proportion peaking at 33.2 percent in 1990. In South Dakota as a whole in 2017, women held 28.6 percent of jobs in the manufacturing industry and 23 percent in Davison County.
While Mitchell is seeing more women in leadership positions at manufacturing companies, the proportion of manufacturing jobs held by women has decreased in recent years, both across the state and in Davison County.
According to Census Bureau data, while 2,082 more South Dakotans were in manufacturing jobs in 2017 than had been in 2009, there were 549 fewer women in those jobs. Women made up 28.5 percent of the state’s manufacturing workforce in 2017 and 31.3 percent in 2009.
However, during that same time span in Davison County, while the proportion of women employed in manufacturing has decreased, the number of women in manufacturing jobs has increased, unlike across the state as a whole.
Pitz said Poet has seen an increase in the number of women it employs at the Mitchell location, other biorefineries and at the company's corporate office in Sioux Falls. Currently, Pitz said, nine of Poet's 45 Mitchell employees are female, including a lab tech, grain buyer, shift supervisor, inventory specialist and the entire accounting staff.
Pitz and Sternhagen both said they expect to see automation continue to increase, and Sternhagen said she expects robotics and engineering will become sought-after careers.
“We’re seeing more and more females apply for those positions, whether it be pyrotechnicians or what have you," Pitz said. "I highly encourage them. Things are automating more and more, and it’s more of a skilled labor.”